The master of the Italian Giallo has fallen on hard times with a lot of fans lately. While he still has his die hard fans, many people have been severely under impressed by his recent body of work. While I enjoyed his two Master’s of Horror episodes, I was let down by Giallo and Mother of Tears. So it was with a mixture of excitement and low expectation that I felt when I heard he would be doing his version of the Transylvanian Count. The initial report and first leaked footage of Dario Argento’s Dracula seemed to bode evil fortunes for this 3-D version of Dracula.
Argento’s camp ad supporters claimed it was unfinished footage that was illegally leaked, and demanded the film not be judged by it. So I waited. Then I saw the “official” trailer for Dario Argento’s Dracula and my heart sank. It looked horribly bad. Still when it was released, I gave it a chance. Trailers aren’t always a fair judge of a film. With Rutger Hauer and Asia Argento, it couldn’t be all bad could it?
In fairness, it wasn’t all bad. But it was pretty damn bad. The sad part is it could easily have been a lot better. Argento is famous for doing it his way, and damn detractors or conventions. There is a lot to be said for that, but it can be a handicap. Kind of like Rob Zombie’s continued use of Sheri Moon as a leading lady. Some of those quirks, like having his cast over emote to the point of silliness, can be put off as just Dario’s style. Other decisions, I just have to shake my head at.
One of the biggest contentions among fans was his decision to have Dracula transform into a giant Praying Mantis and kill a victim. Yes, Dracula can take the form of insects in the book, and yes a praying mantis is deadly to victims it’s own size, but it’s still visually silly. Also it does not fit with Dracula being a being of darkness. When Dracula turns into a owl, it makes sense. Owls are nocturnal hunters, they are dark (mostly) and they are vicious. When Dracula turns into a wolf, it’s OK. Wolves are feral creatures, they hunt at night, they are specifically mentioned in Stoker’s book.
The mantis is green, for blending in with foliage, so changing into one in the middle of a house makes no sense. Changing into a six foot mantis outside makes no sense unless the grass is six foot high. Come on, Dario this was just beyond a silly move. Turn him into a spider, or a fly, and it all works out. The fly effect in the film looked awesome and it fit with him being an undead creature.
Another problem with the trailer was the special effects. The CGI looked awful, and I hoped it would be cleaned up before release. It wasn’t. Some of the effects really looked cool, but most of them looked really bad. The good scenes included the fly scene. In it flies start to gather until suddenly there is a swarm, they eventually coalesces and form Dracula. The few remaining flies disappear into his face Likewise when Dracula transforms from an owl to vampire, the effect is simple and it works.
When he transforms from a wolf, it’s another matter. The scene looks cheap and fake, little better than a sci fi original CGI effect. Another particularly bad, almost funny scene is where Asia’s character is set on fire. The fire doesn’t even look the right color, and you can easily tell it’s a computer effect. I understand not wanting to use real fire, and the fact that the safety measures would prevent you from seeing her face due to safety equipment, but it does no good to see the face if the whole effect just looks like shit. It looked like shit, and it went on forever.
The bad effects look even worse due to the decision to keep the camera on the effects for far too long. the most successful ones, we see only for a short time. The owl transformation, the neck slashing, and while the fly scene lasted a bit the actual transformation was almost instantaneous. In both the fire and the wolf scene the shot seems to go on for minutes, showing way to much.
Speaking of showing too much, one high point of the film was the beautiful Asia willing to bear even more of her body. The fact that her father seems intent on showing more of her nude body with every film, may be disturbing to many people. While it is definitely a, um, different father/daughter dynamic, if she’s getting naked on film for daddy you might as well enjoy it. I guess.
While Asia is definitely gorgeous, she does not quite seem right for the role. Lucy Westerna was a young, single, eligible girl. Asia is just a little too old, and changing her name doesn’t change the whole character. She was still unmarried and courting suitors, which would imply the late teens in the Victorian era. Plus her acting was really subpar, and in all honesty her acting seems to suffer when she is working with her father. Still she is pleasant eye candy.
Marta Gastini, as Mini was just forgettable. I’m sorry but I never felt any investment in her character. She was bland, and for the most part I could have not cared less what happened to her.
The real female star of Dracula was Miriam Giovanelli as Tania. She was stunningly beautiful, and I found her a more sympathetic character than either of the two leads. Her dialogue was limited, and like most of the dialogue borderline silly. I would have loved to seen her as Mina, except it probably would have meant she had to keep her clothes on. It would be a push at best.
Rutger Hauer did his usual great performance. Was it his greatest ever? No, but he, like the rest if the cast was weighed down by the direction and at times inane dialogue. Dialogue and plot always come secondary to style though in Italian cinema. So what if the story sucks, as long as it looks good. Hauer made a very adequate Van Helsing, although he look a bit tired and lost at times. I would love to see him assay the character under a better director, I know I just dissed Argento, blah, blah, blasphemy and all that, but I’m standing by that. Let’s have Christopher Nolan do Dracula, how’s that sound?
For the lead role, Thomas Kretschmann made a very impressive Dracula. It’s not his fault that he turned into a giant mantis, or made these weird hand gestures, that Bela would have been embarrassed to be caught doing. That over acting is totally Dario, and I’m only shocked Rutger got away from it. Still for the most part he was believable in the role, and carried himself with a swagger befitting the Prince of Darkness.
Visually the film looked like a mix of old school Argento and Hammer films. The outside shots were well composed, and looked like the villages and cities in the best Hammer Dracula films. Even the acting of the support cast seemed to mimic, the movement, and speech patterns of the extras in a hammer film. The interiors had interesting color schemes, that reminded me a bit of Suspiria, only much more subdued and subtle. I think if he had stuck to filming the entire film in the Hammer style, with touch of garish light and color, this film could have been a huge success. I can look over the Argento acting style, but giant mantis’s an twilight lycanthrope transformations have no place in Dracula,
Dario Argento’s Dracula is a weird little film. Even though this is a blog for weird little films, I can’t really recommend it. Maybe at some point in the future, we can enjoy Argento’s Dracula. In the same way we enjoy Billy the Kid vs Dracula, but not as a horror classic. For now, unless you are a die hard Dario fan, or a die hard collector, or maybe you have just never saw Asia naked, you probably will want to give it a pass,